Can We Save the Planet?

Can We Save the Planet without Lowering our Consumption?

Philip Kotler

This problem haunts me as a marketing professional. My calling is to help companies sell as much as they can produce. Coca Cola would like to produce as much soft drinks as their factories can handle. McDonald’s want to sell as many hamburger meals as possible. These companies run sophisticated marketing departments and hire advertising and promotion agencies to match demand with the existing supply. If they fail, these companies would have to lower their prices and profits or figure out how to dispose of their overproduced surplus.

Companies and their marketers do many things to grow consumer demand. Automobile companies periodically change their car’s looks and features to pump up demand. Apple recently issued their Apple 12 smartphone hoping that owners of earlier Apple smartphones would turn them in for the new Apple 12 smartphone. Fashion companies change their clothing lines to get customers to buy new items. Zara, the Italian clothier, designs new clothing styles every few weeks, letting customers know that any clothing item that interests them will no longer be in the stores some weeks later.

Food manufacturers are eager to prompt people to buy and consume more food. These companies design and promote new candies, new ice cream flavors, new cheeses, new junk foods. Meat producers want us to eat more meat. Many consumers are now obese and experiencing medical problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancers.

The growing production of more goods has a darker side. Much of our food is animal-based, not plant- based. We need huge herds of cattle to produce all the meat that we consume. We need to grow and kill millions of new chickens to feed our population. Managing these creatures and producing all this food requires a great deal of energy coming from coal, oil, solar or wind. In addition, the animals, especially the cattle and the milk producing cows, release a great deal of methane into the air. All of this heats up the earth, causing warming temperatures, rising tides and melting glaciers.

Deconsumption and Demarketing

Consumers have to ask: Am I consuming too much? Am I consuming the right things? Am I ingesting too much sugar, salt, and fat? Do I really need a new car when the old one works? Do I really need a new computer when the present one works?

Granted, if people choose to consume less, companies will produce less. They would make lower profits and there would be slower and lower economic growth. Companies would need fewer workers. All this means more unemployment, less money to spend, and economic depression. Clearly more anti-consumption means increased economic hardship for many people.

In spite of this, a growing number of people, especially young people, are worried about the earth’s capacity to feed a growing number of people. The world’s population in 1960 was 3 billion; in 2020, it is 7.8 billion. In these 60 years, the world’s population more than doubled. People worry about the earth’s carrying capacity to feed the rapidly growing population. They worry about the deteriorating condition of our soil and the problem of droughts. They worry about the ocean’s health in which a huge amount of plastics the size of Texas floats the sea. They worry about growing air pollution and the difficulty of breathing. They worry about polar bears and other animals dying with the glaciers melting.

Anti-consumerists are a small but growing minority. They have a mix of motives. Some are sane food eaters (vegetarians and vegans) who know they can eat well without killing animals. Some are degrowth activists who feel that they spend too much time and effort in consuming. Some are life simplifiers who are reacting against the clutter of “stuff.” They are less interested in owning goods such as cars or even homes. Another group are climate activists who worry that the planet will get so hot that our coastal cities will be flooded with water and destroyed. Another group are conservation activists who believe in saving, repairing, reusing and recirculating our goods to others to be preferred to producing more and more goods.

As a person with marketing skills, I have primarily used marketing to help increase demand and consumption. As I grew aware of the sustainability movement, I began to have second thoughts about my role. The goal of sustainability is to be able to pass on a world to our children that is as good or better than we had. The problem today is that we are likely to leave our children with a world that is poorer than the one we just experienced. If we fail to address the climate change problem that is caused by continuously growing consumption, our planet will grow less habitable. More regions will experience great heat. The people in those regions will try to flee to more tolerable climates. This will produce more crowdedness in fewer hospitable areas, more hunger, more conflict, and more crime.

So my question became: Do I give up marketing? The answer suddenly came to me and the answer is “no.” Marketing is a tool for both increasing demand and for decreasing demand. More of our need today is to decrease the use of certain types of goods and resources. Consider, for example, the rising number of water shortages in the world. We need to build a conservation mindset for water. We need to identify areas where water is wasted or excessively used. How many showers do people need to take? How many homes and golf clubs need grass and so much watering?

We use the term demarketing to describe efforts to use marketing in reverse, to discourage or lessen the need for something. One example is the demarketing effort to get persons to stop or reduce cigarette smoking. We used a classic marketing 4P approach. How can we use Product, Price, Place and Promotion to discourage cigarette smoking? Can we require manufacturers of cigarettes to change the Product either by making it safer or making it taste worse? Can we raise the Price of cigarettes by imposing higher cigarette taxes? Can we limit the Places where people can buy cigarettes? Can we limit the glamorous Promotion of smoking and put out ads showing the toxic effects of smoking?

All said, just as there is so much pressure to induce more consumption of everything, anti-consumerists can apply demarketing tools to reduce unnecessary or excessive consumption.

The problem remains. Can we let the world’s population and consumption continue to grow and deplete the earth’s resources and overheat its climate? However, if we intervene for the sake of sustainability and slow down economic growth, how will we help the growing number of unemployed? Either way, many people will be hurt. It is very hard to define what is in the best interest of the Common Good.

Meanwhile, those of us in marketing must think more carefully and sensitively about our marketing tools. When should we be increasing demand and when should we be decreasing demand?

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